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Photo by Harry Redl (1926-2011), San Francisco, 1958
Gary Snyder (1930-)
Buddhist Anarchism (1961, 1969)
PDF: The Practice of the Wild (1990)
Record of the life of the Ch'an master Po-chang Huai-hai
PDF: A place in space: Ethics, aesthetics, and watersheds
Han-shan: Cold Mountain Poems (1958)
The Houseboat Summit : February, 1967, Sausalito, Calif.
PDF: On bread & poetry. A Panel Discussion With Gary Snyder, Lew Welch & Philip Whalen
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (1958)
PDF: The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery
PDF: The Zen of Anarchy: Japanese Exceptionalism and the Anarchist Roots of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance
Interview with Gary Snyder,
December 23, 1994
One of the major literary figures of the 20th century. His is the ethical voice in the time honored traditions of the American writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and the Japanese Dogen (1200 – 1253), the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism.
American poet, Zen Buddhist, deep ecology philosopher, and environmentalist, Gary Snyder was born on May 8, 1930, In San Francisco, Cal. and grew up near Puget Sound in Washington state. As a young boy he developed a love for nature that has lasted all of his life. He also developed a love for mountain climbing and by age fifteen he had climbed Mount St. Helens. By age seventeen he had climbed most of the major peaks in the northwest United States.
Snyder attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, with his friends, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, both future Beat poets. He graduated from Reed College with a degree in Literature and Anthropology. He did his post graduate work in Linguistics at Indiana University and at the University of California-Davis, where he studied Asian languages. He had a strong interest in Chinese and Japanese culture and poetry. This interest was shared by poet Kenneth Rexroth (1905 – 1982), who introduced Snyder to the Beat poetry crowd. It was Snyder who inspired the Zen Buddhist craze that swept through the Beat movement.
Snyder has worked as a forest ranger, merchant seaman , mountain spotter, and a longshoreman on the San Francisco docks. He also organized mountain climbing expeditions with some of the Beat writers, and one in particular, with writer Jack Kerouac (1922 – 1969), climbing Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, inspired Kerouac to use Snyder as the semi-mystical poet in his book “Dharma Bums” (1958).
Snyder left for Japan where he studied Rinzai Zen Buddhism and researched and translated Zen texts. He traveled through Asia where he had an opportunity to meet with the Dalai Lama.
Returning to the U.S. he participated in left wing activities with Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919 – ) during the 1960s. He was on stage during the original San Francisco Be-In (Jan., 1967) and still continues to be a major voice in fighting for peace, environmental activism and freedom from nuclear weapons.
He established (1969) a farm on the San Juan Ridge in the foothills of the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains. From here Snyder became a cofounder of the deep ecology movement, along with Arne Naess, Bill Devall, George Sessions, Dolores LaChapelle, Alan Drengson, Michael Zimmerman and Robert Aitken.
Deep ecology takes ecology to a whole new level. “Shallow” ecology sees only the utilitarian value in the environment (the most good for the most people) but “deep” ecology gives intrinsic value to all life wherever it is found. It is the spirituality of Gaia and it leads to direct action. It is interesting to note that the majority of the scholars involved in deep ecology, besides Snyder, were Zen Buddhists. Arne Naess, Bill Devall, and George Sessions were Buddhist scholars and Robert Aitken was a Zen master. “Deep Ecology” (1986), written by Bill Devall and George Sessions, was dedicated to Arne Naess and Gary Snyder. Michael Soule, a Zen Buddhist, biologist and ecologist, with help from Aitken and Snyder, organized one of the first deep ecology conferences at the Zen Center in Los Angeles, California (April, 1982).
At San Juan Ridge, Snyder established a lay Zen center and ecology center. Over the years Snyder and his fellow ecologists have established the San Juan Ridge Tax Payers Association and the Ridge Study Group, along with the Yuba Watershed Institute, a bioregional organization devoted to the total Yuba River Community. Snyder firmly believes that one must understand the wilderness only be experiencing it.
In his poetry, Gary Snyder draws on the mystical experience of his everyday life. His works include: “Myths and Texts” (1960), “Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems” (1969), “Earth House Hold” (1969), “Turtle Island” (1974, winner of the Pulitzer prize), “The Old Ways” (1977), and “The Practice of the Wild” (1990).
In addition to his Pulitzer prize, Snyder also received the Bollingen Prize for Poetry (1997), the John Hay Award for Nature Writing (1997) and the Buddhism Transmission Award (1998) by the Japan-based Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai Foundation (Snyder was the first American writer to receive this award).
Since 1985 Gary Snyder has taught Ethno-Poetics, Creative Writing, and Literature of the Wilderness at the University of California – Davis. He is married to Carole Koda Snyder and they have two sons (by his first wife, Masa Uehara) and two young daughters.
Bruce Cook once said of Gary Snyder: If [Allen] Ginsberg is the Beat movement's Walt Whitman, Gary Snyder is the Henry David Thoreau.
Smokey the Bear Sutra
by Gary Snyder
The Smokey the Bear Sutra is a 1969 poem by Gary Snyder which presents environmental concerns in the form of a Buddhist sutra, and depicts Smokey as the reincarnation of Vairocana Buddha. Snyder composed the poem in one night for a February 1969 Sierra Club Wilderness Conference, at which he distributed the first copies. The poem "may be reproduced free forever," and has since been widely disseminated in print and electronic forms.
Han Shan, Chan Buddhism and Gary Snyder's Ecopoetic Way
By Joan Qionglin Tan
Sussex Academic Press, 2009, 299 p.
Snyder in Japan
Gary Snyder in his small house-garden on Nishinomiya-cho, Kita-ku section near Dai-Tokuji Temple, in monk's travelling outfit,
wearing Unsui's indigo dyed cotton training robe (koromo), square hand-sewn Rakusu cloth hung round his neck, thick belt to guard
zazen sitting posture & belly warmth, and dark-browned Ajirokasa basket-hat stained with juice of green persimmons. Kyoto, Japan July 1963.
Gary Snyder : Dimensions of a Life
ed. by Jon Halper
San Francisco : Sierra Club Books, 1991. xi, 451 p.
In celebration of Snyder's 60th birthday, this is a compilation of the writings of 65 individuals who have worked with and been friends with Snyder throughout his lifetime. He has been a poet and essayist, mountaineer, anthropologist, Zen Buddhist, and environmentalist.
1956-1959: First Time Around
Kyoto in the fifties / Burton Watson -- 53
Kyoto, Zen, Snyder / Philip Yampolsky – 60
An easy rider at Yase / Hisao Kanaseki -- 63
September ridge / Will Petersen -- 76
Strange Big Moon : the Japan and India journals, 1960-1964
by Joanne Kyger
Berkeley (Calif.) : North Atlantic Books, 2000. XII-281 p.
Spring "Sesshin" at Shokoku-ji
Chicago Review, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Summer, 1958), pp. 41-49
In: Earth House Hold, New York: New Directions, 1969, pp. 44-53.
SPRING SESSHIN AT
Shokoku Temple is in northern Kyoto, on level ground, with
a Christian college just south of it and many blocks of crowded
little houses and stone-edged dirt roads north. It is the mothertemple
of many branch temples scattered throughout Japan, and
one of the several great temple-systems of the Rinzai Sect of
Zen. Shokoku-ji is actually a compound: behind the big wood
gate and tile-topped crumbling old mud walls are a number of
temples each with its own gate and walls, gardens, and acres
of wild bamboo grove. In the center of the compound is the
soaring double-gabled Lecture Hall, silent and airy, an
enormous dragon painted on the high ceiling, his eye burning
down on the very center of the cut-slate floor. Except at
infrequent rituals the hall is unused, and the gold-gilt Buddha
sits on its high platform at the rear untroubled by drums and
chanting. In front of the Lecture Hall is a long grove of fine
young pines and a large square lotus-pond. To the east is a
wooden belltower and the unpretentious gate of the Soda, the
training school for Zen monks, or Unsui.1 They will become
1 Unsui. The term is literally "cloud, water"-taken from a line of an
old Chinese poem, "To drift like clouds and flow like water." It is
strictly a Zen term. The Japanese word for Buddhist monks and priests
of all sects is bozu (bonze). One takes no formal vows upon becoming
an Unsui, although the head is shaved and a long Chinese-style robe
called koromo is worn within Sodo walls. Unsui are free to quit the
Zen community at any time. During the six months of the year in which
the Sodo is in session (spring and fall) they eat no meat, but during the
summer and winter off-periods they eat, drink and wear what they will.
After becoming temple priests (Osho, Chinese Ho-shang), the great
majority of Zen monks marry and raise families.
priests of Shokoku-ji temples. A few, after years of zazen
(meditation), koan study,2 and final mastery of the Avatamsaka
(Kegon) philosophy, become Roshi3 (Zen Masters), qualified
to head Sod os, teach lay groups, or do what they will. Laymen
are also permitted to join the Unsui in evening Zendo
(meditation hall) sessions, and some, like the Unsui, are given
a koan by the Roshi and receive regular sanzen-the fierce
face-to-face moment where you spit forth truth or perish-from
him. Thus being driven, through time and much zazen, to the
very end of the problem.
In the routine of Sodo life, there are special weeks during the
year in which gardening, carpentry, reading and such, are
suspended, and the time given over almost entirely to zazen.
During these weeks, called sesshin, "concentrating the mind"-
sanzen is received two to four times a day and hours of zazen
in the Zendo are much extended. Laymen who will observe the
customs of Sodo life and are able to sit still are allowed to join
in the sesshin. At Shokoku-ji, the spring sesshin is held the first
week of May.
The sesshin starts in the evening. The participants circle in
single file into the mat-floored Central Hall of the Sodo and sit
in a double row in dim light. The Roshi silently enters, sits at
the head, and everyone drinks tea, each fishing his own teacup
out of the deep-sleeved black robe. Then the Jikijitsu-head
2 Koans are usually short anecdotes concerning the incomprehensible
and illogical behavior and language of certain key Chinese Zen Masters
of the Tang Dynasty. The koan assigned to the student is the subject of
his meditation, and his understanding of it is the subject of sanzen, an
interview with the Zen Master. Very advanced students are also required
to relate koan-understanding to the intellectual concepts of Buddhist
3 Roshi. Literally, "old master"-Chinese Lao-shih. A Roshi is not
simply a person who "understands" Zen, but specifically a person who
has received the seal of approval from his own Zen Master and is his
"Dharma heir." A person may comprehend Zen to the point that his
Roshi will say he has no more to teach him, but if the Roshi does not
feel the student is intellectually and scholastically equipped to transmit
Zen as well, he will not permit him to be his heir. Most Roshi are Zen
monks, but laymen and women have also achieved this title.
Unsui of the Zendo (a position which revolves among the older
men, changing every six months) -reads in formal voice the
rules of Zendo and sesshin, written in Sung Dynasty Sino-
Japanese. The Roshi says you all must work very hard; all bow
and go out, returning to the Zendo for short meditation and
At three a.m. the Fusu (another older Zenbo who is in
charge of finances and meeting people) appears in the
Zenda ringing a hand-bell. Lights go on-ten-watt things tacked
under the beams of a building lit for centuries by oil lampsand
everyone wordlessly and swiftly rolls up his single quilt and
stuffs it in a small cupboard at the rear of his mat, leaps of! the
raised platform that rings the hall, to the stone floor, and scuffs
out in straw sandals to dash icy water on the face from a stone
bowl. They come back quickly and sit crossJegged on their
zazen cushions, on the same mat used for sleeping. The
Jikijitsu stalks in and sits at his place, lighting a stick of incense
and beginning the day with the rifleshot crack of a pair of
hardwood blocks whacked together and a ding oil a small bronze
bell. Several minutes of silence, and another whack is heard
from the Central Hall. Standing up and slipping on the sandals,
the group files out of the Zendo, trailing the Jikijitsu-who hits
his bell as he walks-and goes down the roofed stone path, fifty
yards long, that joins the Zendo and the Central Hall. Forming
two lines and sitting on the mats, they begin to chant sutras.
The choppy Sino-Japanese words follow the rhythm of a
fish-shaped wooden drum and a deep-throated bell. They roar
loud and chant fast. The Roshi enters and between the two lines
makes deep bows to the Buddha-image before him, lights
incense, and retires. The hard-thumping drum and sutra-songs
last an hour, then suddenly stop and all return to the Zendo.
Each man standing before his place, they chant the Praiiiaparamita-
hridaya Sutra, the Jikijitsu going so fast now no one
can follow him. Then hoisting themselves onto the mats, they
meditate. After half an hour a harsh bell-clang is heard from
the Roshi's quarters. The Jikijitsu bellows "Getout!" and the
Zenbos dash out racing, feet slapping the cold stones and robes
flying, to kneel in line whatever order they make it before the
sanzen room. A ring of the bell marks each new entrance before
the Roshi. All one hears from outside is an occasional growl
and sometimes the whack of a stick. The men return singly and
subdued from sanzen to their places.
Not all return. Some go to the kitchen, to light brushwood
fires in the brick stoves and cook rice in giant black pots. When
they are ready they signal with a clack of wood blocks: an~
those in the Zenda answer by a ring on the bell. Carrying little
nested sets of bowls and extra-large chopsticks, they come down
the covered walk. It is getting light, and at this time of year the
azalea are blooming. The moss-floored garden on both sides
of the walk is thick with them, banks under pine and maple,
white flowers glowing through mist. Even the meal, nothing but
salty radish pickles and thin rice gruel, is begun and ended by
whacks of wood and chanting of short verses. After breakfast
the Zenbos scatter: some to wash pots, others to mop the long
wood verandas of the central hall and sweep and mop the
Roshi's rooms or rake leaves and paths in the garden. The
younger Unsui and the outsiders dust, sweep, and mop the
The Shokoku-ji Zendo is one of the largest and finest in
Japan. It is on a raised terrace of stone and encircled by a stone
walk. Outside a long overhang roof and dark unpainted woodinside
round log posts set on granite footings-it is always cool
and dark and very still. The floor is square slate laid diagonal.
The raised wood platform that runs around the edge has mats
for forty men. Sitting in a three-walled box that hangs from the
center of the ceiling, like an overhead-crane operator, is a
lifesize wood statue of the Buddha's disciple Kasyapa, his eyes
real and piercing anyone who enters the main door. In an
attached room to the rear of the Zendo is a shrine to the founder
of Shokoku-ji, his statue in wood, eyes peering out of a dark
By seven a.m. the routine chores are done and the Jikijitsu
invites those cleaning up the Zendo into his room for tea. The
Jikijitsu and the Fusu both have private quarters, the Fusu
lodging in the Central Hall and the Jikijitsu in a small building
adjoining the Zendo. The chill is leaving the air, and he slides
open the paper screens, opening a wall of his room to the
outside. Sitting on mats and drinking tea they relax and smoke
and quietly kid a little, and the Jikijitsu-a tigerish terror during
the zazen sessions-is very gentle. "You'll be a Roshi one of
these days" a medical student staying the week said to him.
"Not me, I can't grasp koans," he laughs, rubbing his shaved
head where the Roshi has knocked him recently. Then they talk
of work to be done around the Sodo. During sesshin periods
work is kept to a minimum, but some must be done. Taking off
robes and putting on ragged old dungarees everyone spreads out,
some to the endless task of weeding grass from the moss garden,
others to the vegetable plots. The Jikijitsu takes a big mattock
and heads for the bamboo-grove to chop out a few bamboo
shoots for the kitchen. Nobody works very hard, and several
times during the morning they find a warm place in the sun and
At ten-thirty they quit work and straggle to the kitchen for
lunch, the main meal. Miso-soup full of vegetables, plenty of
rice and several sorts of pickles. The crunch of bicycles and
shouts of children playing around the bell tower can be heard
just beyond the wall. After lunch the laymen and younger Unsui
return to the Zendo. More experienced men have the greater
responsibilities of running the Sodo, and they keep busy at
accounts, shopping and looking after the needs of the Roshi.
Afternoon sitting in the Zendo is informal-newcomers take
plenty of time getting comfortable, and occasionally go out to
walk and smoke a bit. Conversation is not actually forbidden,
but no one wants to talk.
Shortly before three, things tighten up and the Jikijitsu comes
in. When everyone is gathered, and a bell heard from the
Central Hall, they march out for afternoon sutra-chanting. The
sutras recited vary from day to day, and as the leader announces
new titles some men produce books from their sleeves to read
by, for not all have yet memorized them completely. Returning
to the Zendo, they again recite the Prajna-paramita-hridaya
Sutra, and the Jikijitsu chants a piece alone, his voice filling the
hall, head tilted up to the statue of Kasyapa, hand cupped to his
mouth as though calling across miles.
After sitting a few minutes the signal is heard for evening
meal and all file into the kitchen, stand, chant, sit, and layout
theirbowls. No one speaks. Food is served with a gesture of
"giving," and one stops the server with a gesture of "enough"
At the end of the meal-rice and pickles-a pot of hot water is
passed and each man pours some into his bowls, swashes it
around and drinks it, wipes out his bowls with a little cloth.
Then they are nested again, wrapped in their cover, and
everyone stands and leaves.
It is dusk and the Zendo is getting dark inside. All the Zenbos
begin tu assemble now, some with their cushiuns tucked under
ann, each bowing before Kasyapa as he enters. Each man, right
hand held up before the chest flat like a knife and cutting the
air, walks straight to his place, bows toward the center of the
room, arranges the cushions, and assumes the crosslegged
"half-lotus" posture. Other arrive too-teachers, several college
professors and half a dozen university students wearing the
black uniforms that serve for classrooms, bars and temples
equally well-being all they own. Some enter uncertainly and
bow with hesitation, afraid of making mistakes, curious to try
zazen and overwhelmed by the historical weight of Zen,
something very "Japanese" and very "high class." One student,
most threadbare of all, had a head shaved like an Unsui and
entered with knowledge and precision every night. sitting
perfectly still on his cushiuns and acknowledging no one. By
seven-thirty the hall is half full-a sizable number of people for
present-day Zen sessions-and the grcat bell in the bell tower
booms. As it booms, the man ringing it, swinging a long
wood-beam ram, sings out a sutra over the shops and homes of
the neighborhood. When he has finished, the faint lights in the
Zendo go on and evening zazen has begun.
The Jikijitsu sits at the head of the hall, marking the half-hour
periods with wood clackers and bell. He keeps a stick of incense
burning beside him, atop a small wood box that says "not yet"
on it in Chinese. At the end of the first half-hour he claps the
blocks once and grunts "kinhin." This is "walking zazen," and
the group stands-the Unsui tying up sleeves and tucking up
robes-and at another signal they start marching single file
around the inside of the hall. They walk fast and unconsciously
in step, the Jikijitsu leading with a long samurai stride. They
circle and circle, through shadow and under the light, ducking
below Kasyapa's roost, until suddenly the Jikijitsu claps his
blocks and yells "Getout!"-the circle broken and everyone
dashing for the door. Night sanzen. Through the next twenty
minutes they return to resume meditation-not preparing an
answer now, but considering the Roshi's response.
Zazen is a very tight thing. The whole room feels it. The
Jikijitsu gets up, grasps a long flat stick and begins to slowly
prowl the hall, stick on shoulder, walking before the rows of
sitti?g men, each motionless with eyes half-closed and looking
straight ahead downward. An inexperienced man sitting out of
balance will be lightly tapped and prodded into easier posture.
An Unsui sitting poorly will be without warning roughly
knocked off his cushions. He gets up and sits down again.
Nothing is said. Anyone showing signs of drowsiness will feel a
light tap of the stick on the shoulder. He and the Jikijitsu then
bow to each other, and the man leans forward to receive four
blows on each side of his back. These are not particularly
painful-though the loud whack of them can be terrifying to a
newcomer-and serve to wake one well. One's legs may hurt
during long sitting, but there is no relief until the Jikijitsu rings
his bell. The mind must simply be placed elsewhere. At the end
of an hour the bell does ring and the second kinhin begins -a
welcome twenty minutes of silent rhythmic walking. The
walking ends abruptly and anyone not seated and settled when
the Jikijitsu whips around the hall is knocked off his cushion.
Zen aims at freedom but its practice is disciplined.
Several Unsui slip out during kinhin. At ten they returnthey
can be heard coming, running full speed down the walk.
They enter carrying big trays of hot noodles, udon, in large
lacquer bowls. They bow to the Jikijitsu and circle the room
setting a bowl before each man; giving two or even three bowls
to those who want them. Each man bows, takes up chopsticks,
and eats the noodles as fast as he can. Zenbos are famous for
fast noodle-eating and no one wants to be last done. As the
empty bowls are set down they are gathered up and one server
follows, wiping the beam that fronts the mats with a rag, at a
run. At the door the servers stop and bow to the group. It bows
in return. Then one server announces the person - usually a
friend or patron of the Sodo - who footed the bill for the sesshin
noodles that night. The group bows again. Meditation is
resumed. At ten-thirty there is another rest period and men
gather to smoke and chat a little in back. "Are there really some
Americans interested in Zen?" they ask with astonishment - for
their own countrymen pay them scant attention.
At eleven bells ring and wood clacks, and final sutras are
chanted. The hall is suddenly filled with huge voices. The
evening visitors take their cushions and leave, each bowing to
the Jikijitsu and Kasyapa as he goes. The others flip themselves
into their sleeping quilts immediately and lie dead still. The
Jikijitsu pads once around, says, "Take counsel of your pillow,"
and walks out. The hall goes black. But this is not the end, for
as soon as the lights go out, everyone gets up again and takes
his sitting cushion, slips outside, and practices zazen alone
wherever he likes for another two hours. The next day begins at
This is the daily schedule of the sesshin. On several mornings
during the week, the Roshi gives a lecture (teisho) based on
some anecdote in the Zen textbooks - usually from Mumonkan
or Hekiganroku. As the group sits in the Central Hall awaiting
his entrance, one Zenbo stands twirling a stick around the
edge-tacks of a big drum, filling the air with a deep reverberation.
The Roshi sits crosslegged on a very high chair, receives a cup
of tea, and delivers lectures that might drive some mad - for he
tells these poor souls beating their brains out night after night
that "the Perfect Way is without difficulty" and he means it and
they know he's right.
In the middle of the week everyone gets a bath and a new
head-shave. There is a Zen saying that "while studying koans
you should not relax even in the bath," but this one is never
heeded. The bathhouse contains two deep iron tubs, heated by
brushwood fires stoked below from outside. The blue smoke and
sweet smell of crackling hinoki and sugi twigs, stuffed in by a
fire-tender, and the men taking a long time and getting really
clean. Even in the bathhouse you bow -to a small shrine high
on the wall - both before and after bathing. The Jikijitsu whets
up his razor and shaves heads, but shaves his own alone and
without mirror. He never nicks himself any more.
On the day after bath they go begging (takuhatsu). It rained
this day, but putting on oiled-paper slickers over their robes and
wearing straw sandals they splashed out. The face of the begging
Zenbo can scarcely be seen, for he wears a deep bowl-shaped
woven straw hat. They walk slowly, paced far apart, making a
weird wailing sound as they go, never stopping. Sometimes they
walk for miles, crisscrossing the little lanes and streets of
Kyoto. They came back soaked, chanting a sutra as they entered
the Sodo gate, and added up a meager take. The rain sluiced
down all that afternoon, making a green twilight inside the
Zendo and a rush of sound.
The next morning during tea with the Jikijitsu, a college
professor who rents rooms in one of the Sodo buildings came in
and talked of koans. "When you understand Zen, you know
that the tree is really there." -The only time anyone said
anything of Zen philosophy or experience the whole week.
Zenbos never discuss koans or sanzen experience with each
The sesshin ends at dawn on the eighth day. All who have
participated gather in the Jikijitsu's room and drink powdered
green tea and eat cakes. They talk easily, it's over. The Jikijitsu,
who has whacked or knocked them all during the week, is their
great friend now-compassion takes many forms.
The Houseboat Summit : February, 1967, Sausalito, Calif.
Featuring Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts and Allen Ginsberg
PDF: A Zen Forest: Sayings of the Masters (1981)
Translated by Sōiku Shigematsu
Foreword by Gary Snyder
Zen Master: Gary Snyder and the art of life
by Dana Goodyear
The New Yorker, October 20, 2008, pp. 66-75.
“The Doubly Eastern Snyder:
Zen Buddhist Philosophy and Poetics in Selected Short Poems by Gary Snyder”
by Surapeepan Chatraporn
in Manusya: Journal of Humanities 12.1 (2009)
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (1958)
Character key: Japhy Ryde = Gary Snyder
Kerouac dedicated his novel to Han Shan. In the novel he not only portrayed his friendship
with Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen and other writers, but also described in
detail Snyder's translation of Han Shan's poems and a Han Shan spirit in Snyder. This novel
pushed Han Shan onto the American countercultural stage as a new mysterious Beat hero,
while Snyder became a new living guru for the Beat Generation.
Jack Kerouac in Berkeley: Reading The Dharma Bums as the Work of a Buddhist Writer by Miriam LEVERING
Pacific World Journal, Third Series Number 6, Fall 2004
Han-shan: Cold Mountain Poems
Translated by Gary Snyder
EVERGREEN REVIEW, vol. 2, no. 6 (Autumn 1958). pp. 69-80.
COLD MOUNTAIN POEMS: Twenty-Four Poems by Han-Shan. First Edition. Portland, Oregon: Press-22, 1970,  p.
RIPRAP & COLD MOUNTAIN POEMS, San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1969. pp. 31-61.
Gary Snyder. Reflections on my translation of the T'ang poet Han-Shan
(In: Manoa, Honolulu; vol. 12, no 1. 2000)
A truly apt translation of a poem may require an effort of imagination almost as great as the
making of the original. The translator who wishes to enter the creative territory must make an
intellectual and imaginative jump into the mind and world of the poet, and no dictionary will
make this easier.
In working with the poems of Han-shan, I have several times had a powerful sense of
apprehending auras of nonverbal meaning and experiencing the poet's own
mind-of-composition. That this should happen is not altogether odd, for although Han-shan is
intense, the range of his sensibility is not as strongly tied to Chinese cultural and historical
phenomena as the sensibility of Po Chü-i, Tu Fu, or Tu Mu. Also, the purely physical side of
the Han-shan world—the imagery of cold, height, isolation, mountains—is still available to
our contemporary experience: I have spent much time in the mountains, and feel at home in
the archetypal land of Han-shan. It would be well-nigh impossible to feel similarly at home
with the concubines, summer palaces, or battlefields of much of Chinese poetry.
Part of my translation effort was an almost physical recall of the pon¬derosa and whitebark
pine, granite cliffs, and frozen summer lakes of my own Sierra Nevada experience. The
mountain imagery in my translation can be taken as an analog (a 'translation') of the lower,
wetter, greener mountains of south China. My initial blocking-out was done in the fall of
1955 in a graduate seminar in T'ang poetics at the University of California-Berkeley. The
instructor was Chen Shih-hsiang. As I wrote elsewhere, "Chen was a friend and a teacher. His
knowledge and love of poetry and his taste for life was enormous. He quoted French poetry
from memory and wrote virtually any Chinese poem of the T'ang or Sung canon from
memory on the blackboard". I had just returned from a summer working as a trail-crew
laborer in the northern Yosemite backcountry, which attuned me to working with a "mountain
As the poem here makes adequately clear, though, Han-shan was not exactly a "nature poet".
He was a person who left his old self behind to walk in the world of jijimuge
("fact-fact-no-obstruction"), which is, in the philosophy of Avatamsaka (Hua-yen) and in the
practice of Zen, just this very world. The recurrent image of Cold Mountain and its roughness
is the narrow gate through which Han-shan tried to force his perception of a whole world, and
this helps to explain his poetry’s calm intensity.
In some ways, our contemporary idea of Han-shan is the creation of the Zen tradition and the
Chinese delight in eccentrics. His poems are much loved in Japan, and formal Zen lectures are
given on his work. The mountains and caves that are associated with him are still there:
people visit them regularly. According to traditional scholarship, Han-shan lived from a.d.
627 to 650. The scholar Hu Shih places him circa a.d. 700 to 750.
In a tangle of cliffs I chose a place—
Bird-paths, but no trails for men.
What's beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I've lived here—how many years—
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
"What's the use of all that noise and money ?"
Robin Chen-hsing Tsai, Translating nature : Gary Snyder and cultural translation.
(In: Neohelicon; vol. 34, no 2. 2007)
Han Shan inspired Snyder primarily through his economy of form
and spiritual-ecological theme. Snyder attempts, in translating 'Cold mountain' and more
generally Eastern thought, not to superimpose a hierarchical relationship between the original
and the simulacrum : his translation project is note purely a textual operation based on
cross-referencing. He makes clear that Han Shan is the very embodiment of a cranky and
eccentric poet-hermit who traverses the boundary between the sacred and the profane. This
hermit's poems not only treat of the poet himself but of his relation to the physical
environment of Cold Mountain and his state of mind. The second theme is that of Han Shan
the man's relationship to the environment and the third theme contains the tripartite concept of
Han Shan the man, his relationship with the environment and his state of mind. Like Han
Shan, Snyder is looking for 'one mind' embedded 'in the flesh' in its true nature, as represented
by the moon, the central image in the poem.
Joan Qionglin Tang, Han Shan, Chan buddhism and Gary Snyder's ecopoetic way.
(Brighton : Sussex Academic Press, 2009).
Han Shan's Cold mountain poems may be heralded as condensed
collection of Chinese philosophical ideas drawn from Confucianism, Daoism and Chinese
Buddhism (including different branches of Chan Buddhism). Han Shan's spiritual journey to
Cold Mountain is often seen as a reflection of the ancient Chinese literati's pilgrimage to Chan
enlightenment. Han Shan's poems seem more colloquial, laconic and direct, but they still
follow some of the main characteristics of Chinese classical poetry. The nature-Chan images
used in his Chan poems not only make the ineffable Chan or 'dao' explicable, but also endow
the poems with a high degree of literary virtuosity. Through translation, the legend of Han
Shan and his poems were brought to such countries as Japan, Korea and the United States of
America. The hermit-poet's name, Han Shan, has become synonymous with the recluse-rebel
against the mainstream culture, and also with the 'dao'-Chan mountain spirit, whilst the place
name, Cold Mountain, is often used to symbolize a nature-Chan world of peace,
transcendence and enlightenment. In China, Han Shan is idolized as an incarnation of
Manjusri ('keen awareness', 'the bodhisattva of wisdom') with the sword of wisdom.
Arthur Waley translated twenty-seven of Han Shan's poems in 1954, Gary Snyder twenty-four
translations in 1958 and Burton Watson one hundred poems in 1962. But neither has proved
as influential as Snyders translation. Waley and Watson looked at the poems only as
translators, whereas Snyder responded to them also as a poet, as a Mahayana Buddhist and as
a mountain hiker. He adopted a principle of selection and a visualization process in his
translation to invent his own mentor in the person of Han Shan. His translations are all related
to Han Shan, to Cold Mountain, and to a spiritual quest for Chan enlightenment. Through his
translation, he discovered that Han Shan had fascinated him from childhood. Han Shan's life
on Cold Mountain seemed to have overlapped with Snyder's early life in the American
western mountains. As a Mahayana Buddhist, he was attracted by Chan enlightenment in Han
Shan's Chan poems, Han Shan secluded life and Han Shan's meditative practice on Cold
Mountain. He melded Han Shan harmoniously into his translation and later into some of his
works, even into his life. Many years later, he still admitted that 'a bit of a Han Shan spirit'
was present in him and others.
The eccentric life of the hermit-poet Han Shan, the vernacular style of Hans Shan's poems and
the nature-Chan world of enlightenment on Cold Mountain accord with Snyder's interests,
personality, and aims as a poet. His successful translation encouraged him to start his own
spiritual quest for Cold Mountain, which symbolizes the literary mountain of ecopoetry for
him. The comparative study of Snyder and Han Shan has been confined mainly to Snyder's
translation techniques, or to the Chinese grammatical influence on Snyder's early works.
Both Han Shan and Snyder are not purists in pursuit of Chan enlightenment in their poetics.
Han Shan's spiritual quest underwent a rather complicated process, the workings of which
were enmeshed with a wide range of Chinese religious or philosophical ideas. He started from
Confucianism, but resorted to Daoism after his failure in the Civil Service Examination. He
soon accepted Indian Buddhism, and then absorbed the essence of Daoism and Chinese
Buddhism, finally turning to Chan Buddhism. Snyder's eclecticism is quite different, for
Snyder considers all Buddhist doctrines as 'one teaching'. Although he is a Zen practitioner in
his daily life and claims himself as a Mahayana Buddhist, he never refutes other religious
teachings in his work, such as Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism. Snyder's principle is to
interweave these teachings with archaic values in an eclectic way to rebuild his sense of
'wholeness'. This principle encourages him not to exclude alternative and even opposing
Buddhist sects from inclusion within his system of thought.
It was the mountain spirit of the poets that linked Han Shan and Snyder so tightly together
that Snyder became an exemplary representative of an American Han Shan.
Snyder's poetic journey to Cold Mountain can be divided into three stages : pre-turning,
turning and returning. This division is mainly based on his acceptance of Han Shan and Chan.
It also assumes that Snyder as a poet has achieved a state of enlightenment after his
self-cultivation, a 'kensho' in Japanese Zen terminology.
Yuemin He, Gary Snyder's Selective Way to Cold Mountain Domesticating Han Shan
In: The emergence of Buddhist American literature, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2009, pp. 45-62.
Han Shan, meaning “Cold Mountain,” is a Chinese T’ang (618–907) poet.
He was unrecognized in China for more than a thousand years but has
become well known to American poets and scholars since the middle of
the twentieth century.1 At least five major translators including Gary Snyder,
Burton Watson, Red Pine (Bill Porter), Robert G. Henricks, and Peter
Stambler have translated his work. Among them, Gary Snyder (1930–) is
the most influential; he and the Beats really made Han Shan famous overnight
Snyder translated twenty-four of Han Shan’s three-hundred-odd classic
Chinese poems, publishing them first in Evergreen Review in 1958 and
then including them with a 1965 reprinting of his 1959 collection Riprap.
The 1965 book was entitled Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. Twenty-one
poems in Snyder’s selection deal with Han Shan’s life in Cold Mountain as
a Buddhist hermit, while the other three comment mainly on more earthly
pursuits either from Buddhist or Daoist perspectives (Snyder poems 4,
12, and 20).3 These poems all emphasize the spiritual and the philosophical,
characterizing nature as sentient and interconnected with men, and life
as impermanent. In short, Snyder’s selection portrays a Han Shan that is
the quintessence of Chinese Zen Buddhism.
Critics such as Ling Chung, Thomas J. Lyon, Sherman Paul, and many
others in Critical Essays on Gary Snyder read Snyder’s translation and poetry
as an effort to find an alternative to American culture of the 1950s.4 Modern
civilization and industrialism were characterized as exploitive by writers
such as Snyder, and this conflict between man and nature called for an
ecological consciousness. Borrowing the intellectual and spiritual strength
of the Chinese Mahayana philosophy that is embodied in Han Shan’s
poetry, Snyder has been seen as criticizing a culture that misunderstands
nature and wallows mindlessly in its own destructiveness.
This interpretation stands in line with Snyder’s own belief that there is,
in contrast to mainstream approaches, “a body of paths which do come to
the same goal—some with a more earthly stress, some with a more spiritual
stress” (RW 68). Snyder’s Riprap poems, including the Han Shan translations,
are overtly contemplative and imbued with “Zen awareness and Zen
detachment”; the Cold Mountain poems were meant to transmit spirituality
to a Western culture mired in materialism (Murphy 81). Snyder’s philosophy
of translation emphatically claims that authentic transmission is possible
through poetry: for Snyder, the poem in English “is not a translation of the
words, it is the same poem in a different language, allowing for the peculiar
distortions of my own vision—but keeping it straight as possible” (RW 178).
Choosing literary over literal translation while “keeping it straight as possible,”
the spirit of Han Shan’s poems, as understood by Snyder, also allowed
for “peculiar distortions” and shows affinity with Snyder’s “own vision.”
Han Shan’s poems are presented as spiritual medicine to cure America of its
materialistic ills, but the question of distortion remains to be discussed.
Though Snyder’s translation strategies express a clear and uncontroversial
aim, less critical attention has been given to the differences between
Snyder’s Han Shan and the Han Shan experienced by Chinese readers.
Snyder’s Han Shan and the Chinese Buddhist layman found in the Chinese-
language poems differ both in their understanding of nature and their
resultant activities. We need to examine in detail how Snyder’s translation
has simplified, altered, and redirected the representation of Han Shan, both
in terms of his biography and his ideas. I will argue that Snyder’s translation
of Han Shan constitutes a classic example of how a “foreign text is not
so much communicated as inscribed with domestic interests.” According
to Venuti, “the inscription begins with the very choice of a text for translation,
always a very selective, densely motivated choice, and continues in the
development of discursive strategies to translate it, always a choice of certain
domestic discourses over others” (468). To accomplish the set task, a
detour is necessary to clarify the critical situation we are in concerning Han
Shan, a relatively obscure Asian poet.
When importing the life of an important figure from one culture and
language to another, we must try to assemble the details as best we can,
given the historical ambiguities inherent in this case. So far there has been
no consensus on the date of Han Shan’s birth or death. His real name is
unknown: because he lived alone at a place called Cold Mountain, seventy
li west of the T’ang-hsing district of T’ien-t’ai, he called himself Cold
Mountain. Two inferences about his life are often cited.5 One infers that
Han Shan lived during the early T’ang dynasty; the supporting evidence is
Lu Ch’iu-Yin’s preface to the poems of Han Shan. Lu claimed to be a petty
official, who before heading for a new post in T’ai prefecture (in the vicinity
of Cold Mountain) had a headache. The doctor brought in could not cure
him. He was then visited by Feng-kan (Feng’gan), a Buddhist master from
Kuo-ch’ing Temple. Feng-kan cured Lu’s headache and, upon request, recommended
Han Shan and his companion, Shih-te, to Lu as well. As soon
as Lu arrived at T’ai, he went to Kuo-ch’ing Temple, first to visit Feng-kan’s
place, then proceeded to the kitchen to see Han Shan and Shih-te. The
two men were laughing, shouting, clapping, and, when greeted by Lu, they
rushed out of the temple and disappeared. Han Shan went to Cold Mountain,
and Shih-te was nowhere to be found. Lu ordered Tao-ch’iao, a monk
in the Temple, to “find out how Han Shan and Shih-te lived, to hunt up
the poems written on bamboo, wood, stones, and cliffs, and also to collect
those written on the walls of people’s houses” (Riprap 42). In this way
more than three hundred poems of Han Shan were retained. The Preface
is undated, but a later postscript to the poems indicated that the story took
place in the early T’ang dynasty (Henricks 3).
The other inference derives from Hsien-chuan Shih-i (cited in T’aiping
Kuang-chi 55). This version says that Han Shan lived during the
middle of the T’ang dynasty, alone in a mountain at T’ien-t’ai. Because
the mountain was deep and snow-capped even in summer, it was called
Cold Mountain or Cold Cliff, and the one who dwelt there called himself
Cold Mountain. Han Shan liked to compose poems, and when struck by
inspiration, he wrote poems on bamboo, trees and rocks. It is not known
who took the trouble to put those poems together. Among the resulting
three hundred plus poems, some are about Han Shan’s reclusive life in
the Cold Mountain; others are satires of society that aim at instructing
the multitude. A T’ang Daoist called Xu Lin-Fu circulated these poems
in three volumes.
Whenever Han Shan lived, we have to bear in mind that no agreement
exists except that he probably lived in the T’ang dynasty. As far as
Han Shan’s identity is concerned, Lu Chi’u-Yin believed he was a poor
man, whereas later in Zu Tang Ji, he is portrayed as a recluse. As far as the
authorship of the poems is concerned, scholars Yoshikawa Kojiro, E.G.
Pulleyblank, Stephen R. Bokenkamp and Jia Jinhua have suggested that
the Han Shan poems probably came from more than one hand. Given
such conflicting background information, Han Shan “remains unknowable”
and is perhaps nothing more than “a figment.”6 Despite these complications,
it is still meaningful to go back and explore my thesis that Han
Shan—as revealed in the three hundred odd poems, whether they were
written by one hand or were composed by multiple authors, whether of the
Sui dynasty or T’ang dynasty—has been transformed and domesticated
significantly in Snyder’s translations.
First, let us scrutinize how Han Shan’s image has been constructed in
contemporary literary studies. Since many of the Han Shan poems preach
Buddhism, people generally like to think of Han Shan as a poet monk. Poem
300 tells us his ambition before he lived in the mountains, and poems 15 and
111 are vignettes of his earlier life as farmer and father and husband. Poems
101 and 131 imply that he read and rode. Poem 49 captures the sadness he
felt when visiting his former household after a departure of thirty years,
where he learned of the demise of many friends. Based on these poems and
other information, scholars assume Han Shan started as a farmer with a wife
and a child and then became a scholar or official of sorts, as poems such as
120 and 113 record repeated failure in the imperial exams. Later in his life
it would seem he dwelt in the Cold Mountain as a Buddhist and Daoist layman.
Of course, it is entirely open to question whether all the experiences
about which Han Shan wrote are from his own personal life. For many readers,
the poems delineate the arc of a life.
If we consider the full range of Han Shan representations, from which
we get a rather ambiguous portrait, we must recognize however that Snyder’s
is a much more organized and even one-sided version of the life and
work. While Snyder’s selection of twenty-four poems from more than three
hundred poems is likely to present only a partial vision of the poet, this partiality
becomes intentional rather than accidental or unavoidable if—keeping
in mind the fact that Han Shan had various poetic interests beyond the
Buddhist concerns that Snyder’s selection tends to offer its audience—we
consider the nature of Snyder’s selections.7
Han Shan’s early poems indicate that he was also interested in secular
subjects. In poem 32, the speaker asks: “What makes a young man grieve”?
And he answers to himself: “he grieves to see his hair turn white” (Pine
trans. 61). Poem 58 compares a society where people fight each other to “A
pack of dogs [that] can’t share” bones (Pine 77). Poem 104 conveys his anger
towards social inequality and shows his deep sympathy for the poor. The
young rich are said to meet “in an elegant hall / [where] the colored lanterns
glowed so bright,” but the poor person “who had no candle/ . . . was chased
away, not allowed even to sit nearby” (Henricks 107). In poem 128, Han
Shan suggests there should be marriage between men and women who are
commensurate in age, a commonsensical proposal echoed in much ancient
Chinese literature, such as Guo Yu, Yan Zhi Chun Chiu and so on (Chu 333).
Poem 129 tells the story of a courteous young man, who, having spent his
life reading classics and histories, finds himself suffering from lack of shelter
in winter because of his inability to obtain employment or do manual labor.
With this poem Han Shan argues that books sometimes can mislead people.
However, in poem 218 Han Shan civic-mindedly advocates educating children:
“In raising sons, if they don’t study with a teacher / they won’t measure
up to the city park rats” (Henricks 303). Han Shan also urges people to learn
to read and write. In poem 207, he writes: “a man unable to read / never
finds any peace” (Pine 173). Poem 151 gives advice to a person who used
to borrow from the speaker, but who is now stingy toward his past benefactor.
While these concerns are not antithetical to kinds of postwar Zen Buddhism
with which Snyder strongly affiliated himself, a consideration of the
non-Snyder Han Shan foregrounds the (pro-Buddhist) ideology undergirding
Snyder’s selection process.
Conspicuous among Han Shan’s numerous secular poems (6, 18, 35,
37, 42, 43, 50, 60, 62, 73, 124, 131, 132, 134, 140, 148, 175, to list just a few)
are a block of poems about pretty young women. Poem 61 portrays young
women who are at once charming and chaste. The last couplet—“Why
must you bother us so long? / Our husbands might find out”—tonally
echoes one of the Han Yueh-fu, “Bo Shang Shuang,” which Ezra Pound once
translated into “Ballad of the Mulberry Road.”8 In poem 131, the speaker
meets a lovely woman in an equally lovely garden. The last couplet of this
poem, “When we met, I wished to call out, / But choked up, I just couldn’t
speak” (Henricks 48) sounds similar to that of poem 10 in The Nineteen
Ancient Poems: “Separated by a single surging stream / they look but cannot
speak.”9 Poem 13 also portrays an alluring young woman:
At the Hall of jade hangs a curtain of pearls;
Inside is a beautiful maid.
In appearance surpassing immortals and gods,
Complexion glowing like the peach or the pear.
At the Eastern inn spring mists collect;
At Western lodge fall winds arise.
And when the seasons have changed thirty years,
She too will looked like pressed sugar cane. (Henricks 48)
Echoing the romantic pursuit theme of poem 13, poem 14 describes
another beautiful maiden in a way that has little to do with Buddhism or
the lives of hermits or sages:
In the city, a maiden of beautiful brow;
Pearls at her waist—how they tinkle and ring.
She plays with her parrot in front of the flowers,
Strums her p’I-p’a beneath the moon.
Her long song resounds for three months;
Her short dance—ten thousand people will see.
It won’t necessarily be always like this;
Hibiscus can’t withstand the cold. (Henricks 49)
These evocations of the evanescence of youth and beauty were highly
esteemed. According to Xue Xue of the Qing dynasty, poem 14 is typical
of T’ang poetry because of its skillful portrayal of female elegance and versatility.
Zhu Xi also regarded this poem highly; he humorously remarked
that, though Han Shan depicted the girl remarkably well, he did not necessarily
have the luck to see her in person (Chu 48).
Since Han Shan may have expected an official career before he
retreated into the mountains, many of his poems also display an interest
in people, events, and anecdotes from the Confucian classics and the
dynastic histories. Such references suggest that Han Shan once had the
desire to embark on the usual career as a scholar-official. In this respect,
these poems are no different from those of other scholar-official poets.
For example, poem 224 argues that “A state relies on people” (Pine 189),
a piece of advice usually given to state rulers to advocate benevolent ruling
and to caution against shortsightedness. According to our sources, for
what they are worth, Han Shan received a Confucian education and was,
before his retreat to the mountains, an ambitious man. Yet Han Shan’s
poetry expresses pain regarding thwarted ambition. The speaker in poem
33 exclaims in pain: “Who is to know that under this cap of cane / there is
fundamentally a man who’s been sad a very long time” (Henricks 72). The
cap of cane was worn by commoners—that is, the T’ang and Song gentlemen
who had not achieved distinguished rank. Evidently, Han Shan had a
sharp sense of being unappreciated, a sentiment that had also overwhelmed
countless other Chinese scholar-official poets. 10
Daoism and Confucianism were native to ancient China and had
existed long before Buddhism was imported into China. For a time in the
T’ang dynasty the three beliefs influenced the Chinese more or less at the
same time, and it was by no means unusual for a person to be susceptible to
more than one belief. That’s why in Han Shan’s poetry we also see a Daoist
streak, and sometimes a mix of all three “isms.” Poem 16 describes the
poet mumbling about Daoist books on immortality in the tranquillity of
the Cold Mountain. Poem 20 records that the reading of Daoist books has
detached him from the constraints of time and space. Even the twenty-four
poems chosen by Snyder to display a Zen Buddhist vision of nature include
Daoist elements. For example, poem 11 (Snyder poem 4) writes:
I spur my horse through the wrecked town,
The wrecked town sinks my spirit.
High, low, old parapet-walls
Big, small, the aging tombs.
I waggle my shadow, all alone;
Not even the crack of a shrinking coffin is heard.
I pity all these ordinary bones,
In the books of the Immortals they are nameless. (Riprap 43)
Here the speaker, witnessing a wrecked city full of the dead, laments that
those dead men lived futile lives and can never expect a place in the Daoist
books of immortals. More dramatically, in poem 156 Daoist and Buddhist
thoughts simply fuse (Snyder poem 15):
There’s a naked bug at Cold Mountain
With a white body and a black head.
His hands hold two book-scrolls,
One the Way and one its Power.
His shack’s got no pots or oven,
He goes for a walk with his shirt and pants askew.
But he always carries the sword of wisdom:
He means to cut down senseless craving. (Riprap 47)
The fourth line of this poem suggests that the speaker is reading the
Daoist scripture, Tao-te-ching, but the seventh line says that he holds “the
sword of wisdom,” the Buddhist sword that can cut off our entanglement
with worldly life and death. While there are more Han Shan poems such
as poems 248 and 302 that bespeak of Daoist philosophical views, it suffices
for the reader to discover that Han Shan’s interests are legion and
In short, Han Shan’s work consists of groups of poems that, taken
as a whole, show a personality in evolution: A young man with an acute
social consciousness became, as he aged, a Buddhist and Daoist layman
who lived off in the clouds. To present Han Shan as completely as
possible would require attention to all the poems, yet Snyder’s introductory
selections—introductory for American readers, that is—constructs
Han Shan from only eight percent of the total number of known poems.
Snyder clearly selected according to his own social and religious concerns.
Snyder’s translations include primarily Han Shan’s more spiritually
overt texts, especially his Buddhist writings. The mundane as well
as the dogmatic side of Han Shan has been erased. As a result, Han Shan
as Snyder constructs him is f lattened somewhat from the perspective
of a Chinese reader who is aware of his full corpus—perhaps as finely
focused as the two-dimensional image of Han Shan presented at the
1953 Japanese art exhibit in America, where Snyder was first introduced
to him.11 It is no exaggeration to say that the multiplicity of Han Shan
has been considerably reduced.
Given such constraints as an audience completely unfamiliar with
Han Shan and an author who was at the beginning of his career rather
than in the middle of a magnum opus of translation, it may be unfair to
accuse Snyder of simplifying the image of Han Shan, but it is quite useful
to consider the ways in which Snyder also altered Han Shan in ways that
aligned his selective translation with the particular cultural formations
such as those we associate with Beat writing. Such movements specifically
rebelled against the broad social, political, and religious characteristics
of American culture of the 1950s.
We may think of environmentalism as something that became part
of American counter-cultural dissent from the mainstream decades
later, especially in the 1970s, but we see evidence of this progressive,
countercultural construction of nature writing when we consider Snyder’s
construction-through-selection of Han Shan. In poem 111, Han
Shan tells us:
When I was young, I’d take the classics along when I hoed;
Originally I planned to live together with my older brother.
But because I met with criticism from the other generation,
I was, even more, treated coldly by my own wife.
I have abandoned, rejected the realm of red dust;
Constantly I roam about with the books I have love to read.
Who can lend me a dipper of water
To revive and retrieve the fish that’s caught in the rut? (Henricks 167)
As Han Shan repeatedly failed the imperial exams (poems 33, 113, 120),
we might assume that Han Shan first went to live alone in Cold Mountain
out of helplessness. Personal or political problems were the conventional
reasons within Chinese literature for coming to see through the “red
dust” and seek escape.12 Nature, meaning the sparsely populated mountain
realms “far from the madding crowd,” offered Han Shan equanimity
and peace that could help him escape from the sound and fury of secular
social life. In poem 2 he asks, “all you owners of tripods and bells / what
good are empty names?” He prefers to enjoy “white clouds clinging to
dark rocks” (Pine 37). Later in poem 154 (Snyder poem 14) he marvels
at the intrinsic vitality lurking in all things:
Cold Mountain has many hidden wonders,
People who climb here are always getting scared.
When the moon shines, water sparkles clear
When wind blows, grass swishes and rattles.
On the bare plum, flowers of snow
On the dead stump, leaves of mist.
At the touch of rain it all turns fresh and live
At the wrong season you can’t ford the creeks. (Riprap 46)
This poem may seem to be merely a descriptive poem, but actually it
conveys Han Shan’s delight in a harmonious relationship with nature:
people who climb the mountain are initially fearful of the otherness of
nature, but the “dead stump” becomes alive in the vivifying rain.
Snyder’s selection of the more Buddhist and proto-environmentalist
poems befits the ideas about Buddhism that were being conveyed to
American readers by postwar translations and popularizations (e.g., the
books of Alan Watts). Not surprisingly, this harmony in nature available
to the reclusive poet (though perhaps not to the short-term visitor)
is really more sustained by Han Shan’s belief in Buddhism than by
any simple aesthetic pursuit or need to escape from personal or political
problems. Mahayana Buddhism, of which Zen Buddhism is only a
branch, interprets all beings as endowed with Buddha nature; all human
beings are interconnected with other beings in nature. Humans and
other beings are one, and all are a whole. This is essentially a nondualistic
worldview that transcends, its more enthusiastic proponents would
claim, the limitations of partial discrimination. Dualistic distinctions
between mind and body are questioned, as are rigid hierarchies between
humans and animals. That’s why Chinese Buddhists value compassion,
and that’s also why some Buddhists, including lay Buddhists like Han
Shan, generally practiced vegetarianism. The fact that the aforementioned
“naked bug” (or what Henricks translates as “a naked critter”)
later turns out to be a man reading religious scripture is not just word
play but striking proof of Han Shan’s belief in the unity between humans
and other creatures.
Snyder claimed in his Afterword to the 1990 edition of Riprap &
Cold Mountain Poems that the poems collected in the volume represented
his “first glimpse of the image of the whole universe as interconnected,
interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, and mutually embracing” (65–66).
However, Snyder’s construction of nature, as also noted by John Whalen-
Bridge, is sometimes dualistic in practice if not in theory, and this partially
successful evocation of nonduality sometimes marks a distance between
his own poems and Han Shan at his best. For instance, his first poem in
Riprap, “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” is often praised
for its skillful and subtle withholding of the subject “I” until the second
stanza, an artistic maneuver that makes the cleavage between land and self
Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air. (7)
The moralistic division city life (abandoned) and wilderness (embraced)
subverts a the poem as an act of interconnectedness—though the poem
is often read that way.13 Particularly, it negates the idea that the poem
can be read in the light of Han Shan’s (or a Buddhist) idea of universal
interconnectedness. The structure that continually informs the major
theme of Snyder’s collection is the rupture between nature and humans,
and it records the existence of a “divorce between nature and culture”
or “a faultline in American culture” (Selby). Since there is a divorce or
faultline between nature and humans, Snyder’s attempt to conjure or
evoke in words the nonduality of natural order and human perception
succumbs to a dualism of sorts. While critic Lee Bartlett has inf luentially
argued that “it is difficult to detect much difference between
‘Mid-August on Sourdough Mountain Lookout’ . . . and, for example, ‘I
Settled at Cold Mountain Long Ago’ (Snyder poem 7; Bartlett 107),” it
is crucial for us to mark the fundamental difference between Han Shan’s
and Snyder’s respective views of nature. We must distinguish between
Zen dogma and poetic practice, however; comparing Snyder’s early
efforts with some of the more developed versions of Han Shan to help us
make such fine distinctions.
Snyder’s motivations in juxtaposing a more transcendentalist Han
Shan alongside his own anti-urban poems may be dualistic in various
ways, but it is not anti-Buddhist. Hence, by placing Riprap, which is characterized
by a style of direct thing-ness alongside the compilation of Cold
Mountain poems, Snyder wants to supply material that will counter the
senseless growth of machine civilization. It is a tactic that works in part
because the Buddhist values that Han Shan’s poems profess (in all of the
translations discussed) lend themselves to ecological critiques of contemporary
urban American civilization.14 Even so, what Han Shan meant
by interconnection is taken for granted, but questioning the interpretive
moment can open up many interesting questions. Commonalities of landscape
across the centuries can accommodate commonalities of value—or
do we dehistoricize the poems too much when we make this kind of claim?
Kahn writes that “the mountain landscape in Snyder’s translations resembled
the mountains of the Pacific Northwest far more than the T’ian-t’ai
of South China” (9). Should we consider this projection and even “Orientalism,”
or will we find that the mistranslations and projections are the
most efficient connections and extensions of Han Shan’s words into the
Han Shan, as a particular kind of Buddhist writer, has, I am arguing,
been altered, and how he was made known in Snyder’s translation must be
understood as a transformation. American literary Buddhism, by extension,
is not an unconditioned transmission; it is also to some degree a construction.
The poetic effects of Han Shan’s writings have been altered through
Snyder’s choices as a translator; whether this can be helped, it improves our
understanding of the literary transmission of values, beliefs, and practices
across cultures to study these varied effects. The twenty-four poems that
Snyder translated originally express Han Shan’s emotional response to the
magic beauty and tranquillity of the Cold Mountain, such as how spectacular
the scenes are (see poems 3, 67, 31, and 154) and what exhilarating experiences
the scenes evoke (see poems 163 and 28). More importantly, when
those poems are put together with other Han Shan poems that Snyder did
not select, they suggest the idea that mountain life helps one to “rise above
such relative concepts as good and evil, sought and found, enlightened and
unenlightened, and all the rest” (Blofield 15). This cathartic effect of the
poems in turn points the reader to a key Buddhist belief: worldly gains,
whether youth or wealth or fame or beauty, are always impermanent and
unworthy of pursuit. Rather, human beings should detach themselves from
the grip of the secular gains so as to attain real enlightenment and enter
Nirvana, which will lead them to a better future life. Han Shan’s poetry is
thus directed to the coming life.
By contrast, Snyder’s translations root Han Shan’s poems totally in this
world, even if the Snyder selections (and Snyder’s poetry in general) recommends
detachment: we should not own anything that cannot be “left
out in the rain.” Snyder is pursuing an alternative culture that can counteract
modern egoistic American civilization, and it is this life that matters.
Snyder is never aiming at “getting out of this world.” He wants to immerse
himself deeply in this world and to make it better. He balances religious
teachings with ecological interconnectedness for the purpose of creating
a guiding principle by which Americans can find a way to live, and he uses
the Cold Mountain poems answers the question of “what is to be done?”
As to “what is to be done,” Han Shan’s response is passivity and perhaps
even indifference. Both Buddhism and Daoism are widely viewed as
religions of passivity and kindness (Murphy, Critical Essays 83), although
recent Buddhist thinkers such as Thich Nhat Hahn have challenged such
views of Buddhism. Han Shan might have lived in the mountains because
he was rather distraught with what he called “the world of red dust.” Poems
33, 113, 120 indicate that he lived the life of a hermit not as a voluntary
choice. Also, in his poems Han Shan simply follows Buddhist precepts and
offers general advice. For instance, though he at times mocks others, and
even laughs at people, and writes in a didactic mode (poems 36, 140, 43,
223), such sarcasm and caustic commentary are never directed at particular
people or events. He does what he does casually and spontaneously; his
is effortless effort. Since Han Shan regularly expressed belief in the unity
and wholeness of everything in nature, he would not be against ecological
action had it been necessary back in his age, but he definitely would not
actively and voluntarily enact it. Indeed, to quote John Blofeld, an enthusiastic
advocate of Han Shan, the Daoist way for Han Shan is to let people
“do their thing” because “[g]uidance, if given at all, should be so subtle that
the person concerned doesn’t know he is being guided. Confrontation, to
Taoists, is unthinkable” (Pine 32).
Like Han Shan, Snyder saw unity; but unlike Han Shan, Snyder didn’t
resign himself only to thoughts. He worked to enact his conviction—moving,
proceeding, performing, and turning eventually political. When interviewed,
Snyder once said:
To be true to Mahayana, you have to act in the world. To act responsibly
in the world doesn’t mean that you always stand back and let things
happen: you play an active part, which means making choices, running
risks, and karmically dirtying your hands to some extent. That’s what
the Bodhisattva is all about. (Real Work 107)
This interpretation of Mahayana Buddhism reveals that Snyder’s understanding
of Buddhism is more dynamic than that of Han Shan’s.
Snyder’s ecological and social activism have shaped his poetic translation
of Han Shan, and he romanticized Han Shan. Hisao Kanaseki rightly
recognizes that Snyder astutely perceives “the human frailties and corruptions
of institutionalized Buddhism” (Halper 74), but Kanaseki also takes
note of “an image Snyder was to return to many times in his own poetry:
the wandering working man, white, Indian or Oriental, appearing on highways,
in work camps, monasteries and dreams.” Snyder’s Han Shan is an
incarnation of Zen Buddhism in a Westerner’s eyes, and yet “there is no
direct evidence in the poems as to what form of Buddhism he [Han Shan]
adhered to or practiced” (Kahn 2). Snyder’s translation offered not a window
into the Chinese culture, but a mirror that gave (countercultural,
Zen-influenced) Americans an affirming reflection. Snyder has borrowed
Han Shan but has “restored” (Barthes’s term) him not to the original place.
Snyder’s domestication of Han Shan inevitably reminds us of what Robert
Kern, one of the few critics who have perceived the deformation in Snyder’s
translations, says about Western translation: “the problem of Chinese
translation has less to do with the effort to find accurate or even adequate
representations of Chinese poetry than with the problem of representation
itself, which is to say the West’s problem of acknowledging and confronting
its own conceptions of what is ‘other’ to it before contact with that other is
even attempted” (175). As Kern wisely suggests, English-language readers
should beware of translations and introductions of Han Shan. In our eagerness
to consume various translations of Han Shan poetry we should keep
our eyes, ears and hearts open, both to embrace and to discriminate, as no
translator is likely to be free from the translator’s paradox: He who translates
1. According to Chinese scholar Chu Xiang, for centuries Han Shan poetry
circulated in China mainly among the Buddhists and it held no position in the
Chinese literary canon. During the 1920s and 1930s, scholars started to pay attention
to it, but the breakout of the Sino-Japanese war stopped the study. See Chu.
Ling Chung offers a similar account of Han Shan’s misfortune as a poet in China
2. In a 1992 interview with Gary Snyder, Eliot Weinberger asked Snyder:
“I think at the time (the fifties and sixties) there were people who thought that
you made him [Han Shan] up. I wondered how you discovered him?” The words
“made him up” and “discovered” indicate clearly how, before Snyder translated
him, Han Shan had been non-canonical in Chinese literature and had been
known in the Far East merely as a Buddhist poet.
3. Because Snyder translated only a small number of Han Shan poems
while this paper has to mention many other Han Shan poems, I have adopted
Robert G. Henricks’s numeration of the Han Shan poems throughout this
essay. Henricks, Professor of Religions of China at Dartmouth College, has
translated the largest number of Han Shan poems among all English Han Shan
translators to capture the breath and depth of Han Shan poetry. After I have
considered all the evidence, both in Chinese and English, I think the scope of
Hendrick’s translation serves as a convenient tool for academic research that
must weave in and out of various versions of Han Shan translation. So besides
including Snyder’s numeration in parenthesis in the text, I have attached a finding
list at the end of this paper to aid readers as well.
4. For detailed analyses, see Murphy’s Critical Essays on Gary Snyder and
5. Most of the background information comes from Henricks’s book and
my translation of Xiang Chu’s Annotations on the Poems of Han Shan. The latter
has been recognized as a key project in the Chinese academic field, and its
author, Professor Chu, is an acknowledged authority on ancient Chinese (Beijing:
Zhong Hua Shu Ju, 2000).
6. See Kojiro, Bokenkamp, Pulleyblank, and Jia.
7. In his introduction to his translation of Han Shan poems, Burton
Watson specifically mentions seven divisions of subject matters to show the
remarkable range of Han Shan’s concerns. They are: laments on the shortness
of life, complaints of poverty, satires on pride and avarice, accounts of
bureaucratic system hardships, attacks on decadent Buddhist clergy, ridicule
of seekers after eternal life, descriptions of natural settings, and allegories of
spiritual questing and attainment. The last of these has made Han Shan famous
8. Henricks, 107. Henricks’s translation of the last couplet of this poem,
“Why must you bother us so long? / Our husbands might find out,” sounds
similar to “How unthinking you are! / Just as you have your wife, / I, too, have
my husband” (translated by Wai-lim Yip) in Han Yueh-fu, “Bo shang Shuang,”
which Pound translated into “Ballad of the Mulberry Road.” For Pound’s translation,
see Wai-lim Yip’s Chinese Poetry.
9. Pine, 126. Like Iritani and Matsumura, I regard this poem as a lyrical
poem though there are critics who try to make Daoist and Buddhist associations.
See notes in Henricks (197) and Pine (126).
10. Other poems with a clear Confucian ideology are 87, 113, 120, and
11. In her article “Reception,” Chung writes, Arthur Waley “discovered
Cold Mountain Poems probably through his reading of Japanese publications
while Snyder’s interest was aroused by a Japanese painting of Han Shan.” (89).
For Snyder’s own account in his preface to his Cold Mountain translation, see
12. See Blofeld’s account of this issue in his introduction to Red Pine’s The
Collected Songs of Cold Mountain.
13. See Nick Selby.
14. Susan Kalter summarizes Snyder’s critique of the dualistic construction
of binaries such as nature/man and civilization/wilderness.
Blofeld, John. The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: on the Transmission of Mind. NY:
Grove Press, 1959.
Bartlett, Lee. “Gary Snyder’s Han-Shan.” Sagetreib 2 no. 1(Spring 1983): 105–
Bokenkamp, Stephen R. Rev. of The Poetry of Han-shan (Cold Mountain): A Complete,
Annotated Translation, by Robert G. Henricks. Chinese Literature:
Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) Vol. 13 (Dec., 1991): 137–145.
Chung, Ling. “The Reception of Cold Mountain’s Poetry in the Far East and the
United States.” New Asia Academic Bulletin (Xin ya xue shu ji kan) 1 no. 1
--. “Whose Mountain Is This? Gary Snyder’s Translation of Han Shan.”
Renditions 7 (Spring 1977): 93–102.
Chu, Xiang Annotations on the Poems of Han Shan. Beijing: Zhong Hua Shu Ju,
Elder, John, ed. American Nature Writers. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s
Sons, 1996, 829–846.
Halper, Jon, ed. Gary Snyder: Dimensions of A Life. San Francisco: Sierra Club
Henricks, Robert G. The Poetry of Han-Shan: A Complete, Annotated Translation of
Cold Mountain. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
Jinhua, Jia. “A Study of the Authentic Author of the Chan Poems in the Collected
Poems of Hanshan.” Zhongguo Wenzhe Yanjiu Jikan no. 22 (March 2003):
Kahn, Paul. Han Shan in English. Buffalo & Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press,
Kalter, Susan. “The Path to Endless: Gary Snyder in the Mid-1990s.” Texas Studies
in Literature and Language 41.1 (Spring 1999): 16–46.
Kern, Robert. Orientalism, Modernism, and the American Poem. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1996.
Kojiro, Yoshikawa. “Postface.” Kanzan, in Chugoku Shijin Senshu, Vol. 5, by Iriya
Yoshitaka (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1958): 197–199.
Leed, Jacob. “Gary Snyder: An Unpublished Preface.” Journal of Modern Literature
13 no. 1 (March 1986): 177–180.
Murphy, Patrick D. Critical Essays on Gary Snyder. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1990.
--. ed. Understanding Gary Snyder. Columbia: University of South Carolina
Pine, Red. The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain. Port Townsend, Washington:
Copper Canyon Press, 2000.
Pulleyblank, E.G. “Linguistic Evidence for the Date of Han-shan. ” Studies in Chinese
Poetry and Poetics, Vol. 1. Edited by Ronald C. Miao. San Francisco:
Chinese Materials Center, 1978: 163–195.
Selby, Nick. “Poem as Work-Place: Gary Snyder’s Ecological Poetics.” Sycamore 1
no. 4 (Winter 1997). Available from www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/
snyder/selby.htm. Accessed on 25 September 2003.
Snyder, Gary. Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. San Francisco: North Point Press,
--. The Real Work: Interviews & Talks 1964–1979. Edited by Wm. Scott
McLean. New York: New Directions, 1980.
Stambler, Peter. Encounters with Cold Mountain: Poems by Han Shan. Beijing: Chinese
Literature Press, 1996.
Teele, Roy E. “Trends in Translation of Chinese Poetry: 1950–1970.” Tamkang
Review 2 no. 2 & 3, no. 1. (Oct. 1971–Apr. 1972): 479–493.
Venuti, Lawrence, ed. The Translation Studies Reader. New York: Routledge,
Watson, Burton. Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-shan. New York:
Columbia University Press, 1970.
Weinberger, Eliot. “Gary Snyder: the Art of Poetry LXXIV” The Paris Review
38.142 (Winter 1996)): 89–118.
Whalen-Bridge, John. “Snyder’s Poetic of Right Speech.” Sagetrieb 70.9 (1990):
Yip, Wai-lim. Ezra Pound’s Cathay. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
--. Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres. Durham: Duke
University Press, 1997.
A FINDING LIST FOR HANSHAN POEMS USED IN THIS PAPER
Name + Poem No. → Their Equivalents in Other Versions
Henricks 2 Chu 2 Pine 1 Snyder 2
Henricks 3 Chu 3 Pine 3 Snyder 1
Henricks 9 Chu 9 Pine 16 Snyder 6 Stambler 3
Henricks 11 Chu 11 Pine 18 Snyder 4 Stambler 96
Henricks 13 Chu 13 Pine 20
Henricks 14 Chu 14 Pine 7
Henricks 15 Chu 15 Pine 21
Henricks 16 Chu 16 Pine 22
Henricks 19 Chu 19 Pine 25
Henricks 20 Chu 20 Pine 4 Snyder 5 Stambler 93
Henricks 28 Chu 28 Pine 32 Snyder 8 Stambler 30
Henricks 31 Chu 31 Pine 35 Snyder 9 Stambler 63
Henricks 32 Chu 32 Pine 36
Henricks 33 Chu 33 Pine 37 Stambler 122
Henricks 45 Chu 45 Pine 49
Henricks 47 Chu 47 Pine 51 Stambler 57
Henricks 49 Chu 49 Pine 53 Snyder 10 Stambler 34
Henricks 55 Chu 55 Pine 58 Stambler 21
Henricks 58 Chu 58 Pine 61
Henricks 59 Chu 59 Pine 62
Henricks 61 Chu 61 Pine 64
Henricks 67 Chu 67 Pine 6 Snyder 3 Stambler 102
Henricks 69 Chu 69 Pine 71
Henricks 80 Chu 80 Pine 81
Henricks 81 Chu 81 Pine 82 Snyder 11 Stambler 11
Henricks 95 Chu 95 Pine 95
Henricks 101 Chu 101 Pine 101
Henricks 104 Chu 104 Pine 104
Henricks 111 Chu 111 Pine 111
Henricks 113 Chu 113 Pine 113
Henricks 117 Chu 117 Pine 116 Stambler 15
Henricks 120 Chu 120 Pine 119 Stambler 68
Henricks 128 Chu 128 Pine 127
Henricks 129 Chu 129 Pine 128
Henricks 130 Chu 130 Pine 133 Snyder 13 Stambler 46
Henricks 131 Chu 131 Pine 134
Henricks 151 Chu 151 Pine 154
Henricks 154 Chu 154 Pine 157 Snyder 14 Stambler 62
Henricks 156 Chu 156 Pine 159 Snyder 15
Henricks 163 Chu 164 Pine 26 Snyder 7 Stambler 71
Henricks 168 Chu 169 Pine 167 Snyder 16
Henricks 170 Chu 171 Pine 169 Snyder 17
Henricks 174 Chu 175 Pine 173
Henricks 179 Chu 180 Pine 178
Henricks 180 Chu 181 Pine 179 Snyder 18
Henricks 181 Chu 182 Pine 180 Snyder 19 Stambler 92
Henricks 185 Chu 186 Pine 184
Henricks 186 Chu 187 Pine 188 Snyder 20
Henricks 193 Chu 194 Pine 193 Snyder 21
Henricks 201 Chu 202 Pine 203 Snyder 22 Stambler 125
Henricks 203 Chu 204 Pine 205 Snyder 23
Henricks 207 Chu 208 Pine 201
Henricks 218 Chu 219 Pine 216
Henricks 220 Chu 221 Pine 218 Snyder 24
Henricks 224 Chu 225 Pine 222
Henricks 260 Chu 261 Pine 259
Henricks 270 Chu 271 Pine 268
Henricks 274 Chu 275 Pine 271
Henricks 300 Chu 302 Pine 131 Snyder 12
“Buddhist Anarchism” was originally published in Journal for the Protection of All Beings #1 (City Lights, 1961). A slightly revised version appeared in Earth House Hold (New Directions, 1969) under the title “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution.” We have reproduced the latter version, but have kept the original title.
Buddhism holds that the universe and all creatures in it are intrinsically in a state of complete wisdom, love and compassion; acting in natural response and mutual interdependence. The personal realization of this from-the-beginning state cannot be had for and by one-“self” — because it is not fully realized unless one has given the self up; and away.
In the Buddhist view, that which obstructs the effortless manifestation of this is Ignorance, which projects into fear and needless craving. Historically, Buddhist philosophers have failed to analyze out the degree to which ignorance and suffering are caused or encouraged by social factors, considering fear-and-desire to be given facts of the human condition. Consequently the major concern of Buddhist philosophy is epistemology and “psychology” with no attention paid to historical or sociological problems. Although Mahayana Buddhism has a grand vision of universal salvation, the actual achievement of Buddhism has been the development of practical systems of meditation toward the end of liberating a few dedicated individuals from psychological hangups and cultural conditionings. Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under. This can be death to Buddhism, because it is death to any meaningful function of compassion. Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.
No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics a nd social orders. The national polities of the modern world maintain their existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. The “free world” has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love, or the revolutionary aspirations of pitiful, poverty-stricken marginal societies like Cuba or Vietnam. The conditions of the Cold War have turned all modern societies — Communist included — into vicious distorters of man's true potential. They create populations of “preta” — hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, the forests and all animal life are being consumed by these cancerous collectivities; the air and water of the planet is being fouled by them.
There is nothing in human nature or the requirements of human social organization which intrinsically requires that a culture be contradictory, repressive and productive of violent and frustrated personalities. Recent findings in anthropology and psychology make this more and more evident. One can prove it for himself by taking a good look at his own nature through meditation. Once a person has this much faith and insight, he must be led to a deep concern with the need for radical social change through a variety of hopefully non-violent means.
The joyous and voluntary poverty of Buddhism becomes a positive force. The traditional harmlessness and refusal to take life in any form has nation-shaking implications. The practice of meditation, for which one needs only “the ground beneath one's feet,” wipes out mountains of junk being pumped into the mind by the mass media and supermarket universities. The belief in a serene and generous fulfillment of natural loving desires destroys ideologies which blind, maim and repress — and points the way to a kind of community which would amaze “moralists” and transform armies of men who are fighters because they cannot be lovers.
Avatamsaka (Kegon) Buddhist philosophy sees the world as a vast interrelated network in which all objects and creatures are necessary and illuminated. From one standpoint, governments, wars, or all that we consider “evil” are uncompromisingly contained in this totalistic realm. The hawk, the swoop and the hare are one. From the “human” standpoint we cannot live in those terms unless all beings see with the same enlightened eye. The Bodhisattva lives by the sufferer's standard, and he must be effective in aiding those who suffer.
The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom ( prajna ), meditation ( dhyana ), and morality ( sila ). Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one's ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the mind to see this for yourself — over and over again, until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community ( sangha ) of “all beings.”
This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world. It means using such means as civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous redneck. It means affirming the widest possible spectrum of non-harmful individual behavior — defending the right of individuals to smoke hemp, eat peyote, be polygynous, polyandrous or homosexual. Worlds of behavior and custom long banned by the Judaeo-Capitalist-Christian-Marxist West. It means respecting intelligence and learning, but not as greed or means to personal power. Working on one's own responsibility, but willing to work with a group. “Forming the new society within the shell of the old” — the IWW slogan of fifty years ago.
The traditional cultures are in any case doomed, and rather than cling to their good aspects hopelessly it should be remembered that whatever is or ever was in any other culture can be reconstructed from the unconscious, through meditation. In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past. If we are lucky we may eventually arrive at a totally integrated world culture with matrilineal descent, free-form marriage, natural-credit communist economy, less industry, far less population and lots more national parks.